a long rant about burning man

all in all, burning man was a toss up, and i’ve pretty much decided that, given the lack of a good reason to go (like the last performance of Cirque de Flambé EVER), i will probably not go again, for the simple reason that if i’m going to go camping for a week i want to go to a place where i can relax, not to a place where it’s oppressively hot and dry and you have to worry about how much water you’re consuming because there isn’t any, anywhere else for 100 miles in any direction. the following is bits and pieces from a recording that i made every night before going to sleep.

saturday, 23 august: stuart and heather and i left seattle, and 4½ hours later, just as we were getting to klamath falls, oregon, i discovered that i had left my identification in seattle. i was certain that i had remembered it, and actually unloaded the entire van at a gas station outside of klamath falls in a panicked attempt to find it, but it was in seattle – i had been going through my “list of things to bring to burning man,” and had deliberately put my ID in the car the day prior to when we left, but the day we left, i took my bag out of the car because it had something in it that i needed in the house, and stuart and heather arrived at that time, and i forgot to put the bag back in the car. ID is extremely important to have when you’re driving out of state, and even moreso because they didn’t actually send the tickets out ahead of time. they planned on you showing your ID at the gate in order to get your ticket. while i was freaking out, unloading and then reloading the van, and imagining us having to drive back to seattle, heather (the smart one) was on her cell phone and arranged for us to meet macque and norma in alturas, california, so that macque could “vouch for me” at the gate and, hopefully, get us ME in to the site. WHEW!! – that, by itself, is something that i hope i never have to experience again in my life. it took me several hours to come down from the adrenaline rush that gave me. we made it through klamath falls, and made it to alturas and met up with macque and norma, and everything was back on track again.

getting theresunday, 24 august: we stayed the night in alturas (which is what we planned anyway), and headed in to burning man in the morning, in a caravan with macque and norma. we went through cedarville, california, which is the last gas station before burning man, and eagleville, california, which is the last town of any size at all (and has no gas station) before getting to burning man, which is actually close to gerlach, nevada (and also apparently has no gas station). the burning man site is around 10 miles or so outside of gerlach, but you come to a Y in the road, and you go one way to get to gerlach and the other way to get to burning man.

about 5 miles before the Y in the road we passed a truck that had broken down and pulled off the road at a wide spot – the only wide spot in the road for 75 miles, as far as i could tell. stuart (who was driving) said “hey, that looked like sasha” and while i was still processing what that meant, stuart turned around and went back, and, sure enough, it was our truck, with sasha and kiki, who had been nursing along the broken truck for 24 hours, since eagleville – going 5 miles or so until the engine overheated and then parking in the road to wait for it to “cool down,” which, in itself, was sort of a lost cause, since the ambient temperature of the air was only 20 degrees cooler than the overheat threshold of the engine. they had originally planned on arriving on saturday, and were already 24 hours behind schedule, and because of the fact that there wasn’t any cell phone service, they had been unable to call anyone for help. they had gotten to the wide spot, and pulled off the road and decided that, until they knew what was happening with the truck, they were not moving it any further. fortunately(??) they were only a couple miles outside of gerlach, so they rode their bicycles in to gerlach, to use the pay phone. on the way, the chain broke on kiki’s bicycle, and she had to round up a chain tool before she could get back. sasha called the rental truck company and they said they would send out a repair technician, but he was coming from furley (about a 3 hour drive away) and he still had a couple of hours before he was supposed to get there when we arrived. when he finally arrived, he was not driving a tow truck, which was a tremendous disappointment, because it was obvious by that time that we weren’t going much of anywhere without one. sasha and the repair guy hashed out what was probably wrong with the truck, and, reluctantly, sasha started it and proceded downhill towards the site… but as soon as the road started up the next shallow grade, the engine overheated again, and the truck had a safety lockout that shut down the engine when it started to overheat, and this time we didn’t have a place to pull off to the side of the road, so macque and i directed traffic around the truck, which was well and truly dead and wouldn’t move again under its own power. sasha and the repair guy went back up the road to gerlach, to call the rental truck people again (there was NO cell phone service), and arrange for a tow truck – which, for some reason, the rental truck people were extremely hesitant to send out once they discovered what we were doing to it… apparently “somebody” had “neglected” to tell the rental truck company that we were 1) going to be driving it out of state, and 2) that we were going to burning man… oops!

getting thereso we left sasha and kiki and the repair guy to wait for the tow truck, and eventually macque, norma, heather, stuart and i made it in to the gate. macque “vouched for me” and i got in with a minimum of hassle, and we made it to the camp, which was at 3:00 and esplanade, where we informed everyone about sasha and kiki’s travails and told them to be expecting a tow truck with “the truck” behind it, and sasha and kiki and (presumably) a replacement truck to be arriving some time later in the evening, because the tow truck had to be sent out from reno, which was about 4 hours away. at midnight sunday night (monday morning) the tow truck arrived, and we unceremoniously “barfed” the contents of the truck in a huge pile so that the tow truck driver could get out without forfeiting the $600 deposit he had to put down to get inside the gate. it had taken the entire crew six hours to load the truck, and it took about 15 of us 2 hours to unload it, and we didn’t bother to organise things, we just plopped it down on the playa and called it good.

day onethe dust was everywhere. within 5 minutes of my getting out of the car, my entire body was covered with this fine dust, and my clothes were saturated in it. it was in my ears, and in my nose, and in my eyes. dust mask and goggles are definitely essential accessories on the playa, and i brought goggles and plenty of bandanas, which were almost as good. but there was no getting away from it – black rock city “waters” the main streets (of which esplanade is one) once a day, and if you think running behind the water truck to take a shower is a way of getting free of dust, you’d be wrong. if you put this dust in the presence of water it instantly turns into this slushy, sloppy mud that turns into concrete when it dries (which is almost instantly), and then it’s even more difficult to get off than it was before. even taking a shower is dangerous, because it’s alkali dust – meaning that it is intensely caustic, and has the potential of burning your skin if you don’t get it off. it’s hot and dry and dusty, and it aggressively sucks the water out of your skin – it’s actively dangerous for human beings to exist in this kind of environment for very long. i don’t know how people do this every year! and yet there is a city of 50,000 people (they told me that it was temporarily the fourth largest city in nevada, for a week, before it dissolves again into the dust from which it came) who seem to crave this kind of abuse.dusty salamandir

so we started out the week 48 hours behind schedule, and i’ve only been here for less than 24 hours and i’m already desperately tired and dirty and there’s no water!

monday, 25 august: the party actually starts today. we had “early admission” passes so that we could get our camp set up ahead of time, but that’s all out the window at this point. i moved a whole bunch of stuff around so that i had a little more room. i had a giant tarp that i threw over the van, and i figured that the stuff that was in airtight bins could easily be stored on the ground instead of in the van, so that i would have a little more room to move around, and that made things a lot better.

however, at 9:00 or so monday morning, there was a massive wind/dust storm that lasted pretty much all day. the rangers i talked to said that they had never seen so much dust at burning man. apparently, during the winter, the playa freezes, which packs down the dust, but because of global warming, the playa didn’t freeze last winter, which meant that instead of hard packed dirt, the playa was covered with drifts of fine sand that blew everywhere the moment the slightest breeze came up.

ManWatchso i took care of my camp, and then went up and started organising the pile of barfed out truck contents, which took until 2:00 or so, while other people in the crew put up the kitchen tent, which was four large tents. then, because of the fact that i didn’t have to pay for a ticket(!!), i went and did a shift for “ManWatch,” which was established this year in response to last years’ incident where someone actually set fire to the man on wednesday instead of waiting until saturday. the guy was apparently arrested and charged with arson, and he may still be in jail, but they decided that they should be a bit more pro-active about it this year. the man was an enormous structure/sculpture that was a five-story pedestal with two intersecting spiral staircases that are supposed to represent DNA (although from what i understand, it just made people dizzy) and “The Man” on top, which added another 25 or 30 feet to its overall height. but it was so windy/dusty that, for most of my watch, you couldn’t even see more than a couple of feet in front of your face, and had no hope of seeing the ground from the top of the man the other manwatch guy on was on the opposite side of the man from me, but he might just as well have been in another country, because i couldn’t see him most of the time. the person i was supposed to report to was bettie june, but i never actually saw her that i know of. when i got there, someone said that bettie june was at the top of the man, so i climbed to the top where i discovered that she had just left, and when i got back to the bottom, she was nowhere to be found.

neighboursi went to black rock city hardware, at 6:30 and center camp, to say hello to a friend of moe’s, colleen, and was gifted a pair of leather welding gloves by her husband when he found out that i had neglected to bring gloves. he was also giving away a seven-foot fire staff, with which he broke his leg last year (which was the reason he was giving it away). also i discovered that we’re going to be getting extra water for everyone, which will mean a shower, once the shower is set up – which won’t be today because it’s as bad as a kite in these winds.

artthere is a lot of really cool artwork out there, and getting to see some of it in the process of being constructed is an extra bonus. at night, it was very much like oregon country fair only 100 times more lights and twinkly things, and people doing artistic stuff with fire all over. the hookadome, our neighbour to the south, has a bunch of columns outside their dome that randomly spout flames into the air, and there are things like that all over the city.

it’s incredible that this many people can come together and create this much artwork in such a hostile environment, and then disperse leaving only the desert, but apparently that’s exactly what they do. if it were not in a desert, it would very likely be at least 100 times more cool!

creole gumbo for dinner… and it was good! and not just because i am exhausted and hungry. however at the camp meeting this evening, macque said that there’s the possibility of either putting off the show (which is supposed to happen wednesday – day after tomorrow <shudder>>) until thursday, because of the problems with the truck, or there is also the possibility of not doing the show at all, if the weather doesn’t improve. we’ve had another breakdown: keith, our sound guy, who broke down just inside the gate (like 10 feet inside), who had to hike in from the gate with no water during the wind storm. if we don’t do the show, macque says he has permission to “start a forest fire” on the playa on sunday night – he’s got A LOT of pyrotechnics, and he isn’t afraid to use them.

Keep Off The Grasstuesday, 26 september: there is A LOT of REALLY COOL artwork out there, and some of it is in the strangest places you could possibly imagine, for example: i was wandering aimlessly on the playa today and came across an area about five feet square that had been fenced off with warning tape that said “KEEP OFF THE GRASS”. inside the square was a tiny square, about 3 inches on a side, that was actual grass – it was green and lush and vibrant, and obviously had not been in the desert that long – of course, totally surrounded by playa, where there was absolutely NOTHING green anywhere else for miles. if i hadn’t been wandering in that exact place, i would have missed one of the greatest experiences i ever had, artistically speaking.

the city is laid out like a clock. the man is in the middle, and to the north – 12:00 – there is a building called “The Temple”, which is full of wind chimes and bells and suchlike, but isn’t actually used for worship – which i find very disappointing. i went by there a couple of days ago, but apart from being a fantastically colossal piece of engineering (it’s a three stories tall, and open to the wind) it didn’t impress me enough to go back. the city starts at 2:00 and goes around until it gets to 10:00. at 6:00 is a smaller “wheel” called “center camp,” and there are art “portals” at 3:00, 4:30, 7:30 and 9:00. there are also streets that run around the circumference of the circle, which are named after cars this year, and go alphabetically: the innermost street is called Esplanade, and then it goes Allante, Bonneville, Corvair, Dart, Edsel, Fairlane, Gremlin, Hummer, Impala, Jeep and K-car. this way you can state a clock position and the closest cross street and have addresses in the middle of a vast, endless wasteland. my camp is at 3:05 and Esplanade.

these burners have two things that draw them together, only one of which i share with any great feeling. the first, and the one i share with them, is that they really like fire, and the other is that they really like playa dust. i admit, it does have some uses: i discovered that the cuico-like noise maker i had didn’t have enough friction to make it sound like anything, so i added a little playa dust and it worked even better than when i used cello rosin – so much so that i actually brought home a film container full of playa dust. but on the whole, i could do the whole burning man thing a lot more easily if it weren’t for the dust.

Babylonthere is a 10 story tall steel building, called Babylon, on the playa outside of the main city area. they must have had to bring in a couple of huge cranes and a lot of big trucks to move it in. it’s not connected to the ground in any way that i could see, but it’s very stable and can hold tens of thousands of people. while Babylon is far and away the biggest structure in terms of height, there are equally huge pieces of artwork spread all over the playa, and in the city itself.

the weather was really nice today. i get the impression that this is what burning man is supposed to be like all the time, and it’s a good thing, because much more weather like monday and i’ll be ready to swear off burning man for good. at this point, if i do come back, i want to do it entirely differently. i really want to get a dome. a dome is halfway in between a tent and a permanently erected building, with the advantages of both: they’re really light, and really sturdy, and really inexpensive, and cover a large amount of area with a minimum of materials, and they can be really simple or really elaborate depending on what you need, and you can put them up and take them down relatively easily even if they’re 25 feet tall, and pack it down into a really small, relatively easily transported bundle.

canisone of the things i read in the local newspaper in alturas was addressing a popular local notion that burning man is a “festival of degenerates, who get together for a week to worship idols, take drugs and practice nudity”. while i only saw one idol, and only experienced drugs that i brought myself, there are a wide and vast profusion of naked people on the playa – which includes my friend canis, pictured here (he said he wanted a picture to send home to his parents) – but at the top of the list i would like to tip my hat to the Traveling Titty-Totter Of Terror, our neighbours to the north, whose entertainment provided me with an endless view of a wide variety of breasts. rest assured, i took a lot of pictures.TTTTOT

another thing that i forgot to bring from seattle is my box of twinkly-sparkly things. i put twinkly lights on my bike tire inflation nozzles, but they quit working as soon as they got filled with dust. also, i find it unusual that, in a place where the point is to do things that stimulate you visually, the art that i brought along myself is entirely auditory. i brought my guitar amp, my digital delay, and a microphone, and went out to the front of the camp and made noise for the people passing by on the esplanade. i had a good time for about 4 hours, but it seems really strange that i should go to an event where people do twinkly-sparkly things, and make huge amounts of noise, and i’m deliberately not twinkly-sparkly, and the noises i make are so quiet that nobody else can hear them. the fact is, i’m an anachronism even among the anachronisms that go to burning man in the first place.

i saw douglas and joni today! it’s been a very long time since i’ve seen them – in fact, i don’t think i’ve seen them since my injury, in a long time ago! their camp is at 4:50 and Jeep. also i talked to a guy who is doing some sort of educational thing with found musical instruments, and he wants to talk with me about my PVC flutes.

the best case scenario is that joseph will get here tomorrow. we still haven’t seen, or heard from dan or moz. we’re going to make the decision whether to delay the show or not tomorrow. things are a lot more set up and organised than they were yesterday. the shower was set up today, but i’m probably not going to take one until tomorrow, to let the furor die down a little. dinner was excellent again tonight, although there wasn’t as much of it as there could have been. we had spaghetti.

wednesday, 27 august: the shower works, and it’s absolutely amazing how much difference one gallon of water makes to my overall feeling of well being. i took my amp and delay pedal out to the front of the camp and made noises again for a few hours, which seemed to go over pretty well – unlike what would happen in normal society if i were to make noises like that, people basically treated me as though i were busking, even though they weren’t throwing money – and i had a lot of fun doing it.

after dinner we had a rehearsal. the part of the fremont philharmonic that went to burning man is officially called “Guido’s Righteous Hand” which is to honour father guido, the inventor of the four-line, and then the five-line staff, and it consists of stuart, kiki, sasha, joseph and myself. after the rehearsal was over, i decided that i wanted to go back and make more noise, but my mic wasn’t working – which was not entirely unexpected, seeing as how it’s about a 25 year old radio shack mic. so i searched around and found a mic, but i couldn’t find the cables, and i couldn’t find anybody who knew where they were, so i packed up my stuff and got ready to wander out. just as i was leaving, i ran into keith, who knew where the cables were, but had just ingested some mushrooms and was on the up side of the trip, so i got the cable and mic, and i got my stuff back out and all set up before i discovered that the microphones i found wanted a preamp, and i didn’t have one… 8/ so i put all of my stuff away again and decided that i would see if keith knew where i could get more mushrooms. he did, but he disappeared (not entirely unexpected, he was on mushrooms, after all) before he could give them to me. at this point i was feeling really discouraged, and moped around under my tarp for a while and smoked some pot. the dry atmosphere has gotten into my pot as well, and it’s all drying up and turning to powder, which tastes rancid. i decided that i was going to make one more attempt to find some amusement before i went to sleep, and sasha showed up, and, bob’s-yer-uncle, he had a mic that doesn’t want a preamp to function correctly, so i spent a couple more hours making noises out in front, and playing with stuart, who showed up later. Q and barack had set up a bike ramp in front of the camp, and we sat around and drank beer and encouraged people to jump off the ramp with their bicycles, and when they did, Q took their picture.

joseph got here today. nobody has heard from moz, so we elected dan (the body) goodman ringmaster. dan has been really frightening, showing up in starched white military garb – which i gather he gets from being, or having been an attorney for the judge-advocate general. tomorrow is the show!

Hand of Manthursday, 28 august: today i saw a three-story tall, fully articulated mechanical hand (called Hand of Man, a sculpture by Christian Ristow), which was controlled by a glove that transforms the movement of the wearer’s hand into a monsterous claw of destruction! the wearer, in this particular case, was a little girl about seven years old, and she PICKED UP a car about the size of my minivan, CRUSHED IT and SMASHED IT ON THE GROUND!!! this is definitely an example of art that is too dangerous for “normal” peoples’ consumption, but at the same time, it was SO cool! 😀

the show went off, but it wasn’t a particularly together show, and the only good thing i can say about it is that we’re never going to do it again! the band held it together. the first part of the acts were fairly good, because, although moz showed up this afternoon (more about that in a minute) we had unanimously elected dan to be ringmaster, so as a compromise, dan was the ringmaster for the first part of the show and moz was the ringmaster for the second part of the show. but, the thing is, dan has been a part of the troupe for a long time and knows the acts fairly well, whereas, while moz, a consummate professional in his own right, is not familiar with the acts as much, and kept interrupting, stepping on lines and suchlike. not only that, but el diablo went missing and had to be bumped to last, which screwed up the order for everyone, and to top it all off, the dancers were expecting us to play “The Hustle” when we were playing “We’ll Meet Again” (even though that’s how we rehearsed it at least twice that i can remember), and stood there gawping instead of dancing during the last number. in all, it was a lot more like disorganised mayhem than it was like a show, but the audience liked it, laughed at appropriate times and applauded in earnest when it was over, so it couldn’t have been all bad.

moz was our third breakdown. i didn’t get the entire story, but he showed up thursday afternoon about 2:00 and, on top of that, had apparently suffered four blowouts between san francisco and burning man – fortunately – or not, considering how many of them there were – they didn’t all happen at the same time, and fortunately there were people who had exactly what he needed to continue his journey that came along eventually. i’m going to make buttons for everyone with the cirque de flambé logo and the burning man tearing his hair out that says “I SURVIVED BURNING MAN 2008”.

after the show i was sitting in the kitchen tent with macque and kenny and a whole bunch of other people, and a fair amount of vodka, and kenny decided that it would be amusing to light a couple of pieces of quick-fuse that he found laying around on the table after the pyro had been fused. quick-fuse is not like the kind of fuses that you normally find on M80s or that kind of thing. it doesn’t burn slowly, it explodes, spraying sparks everywhere… the result is that i got covered with sparks, and because of the fact that my costume wasn’t supposed to be on fire, it hadn’t been fireproofed, which means that i now have burn marks on my fleece coat and big melted patches on my clown pants.

now it’s very late, heather and stuart have gone off somewhere, sasha and kiki have gone off somewhere, and i’m here alone and i miss my honey. it’s time to go home.

friday, 29 august: it seemed like i was asleep for about 10 minutes before it was daylight outside and i had to get up because the sunlight was making the car too hot. i was so tired from last night that i sat around and did nothing for most of the day, but in the afternoon, about 5:00, i decided to have a ritual vegetable sacrifice from Babylon. because of the fact that cleanup would be an issue (and because of the fact that i hadn’t actually brought one) the ritual pumpkin or watermelon was dispensed with and replaced with carrots, which are a lot easier to clean up when tossed from the top of a tower onto unsuspecting people below. of course, we sacrificed the Holy Vegetable as well. i invited a whole bunch of more-or-less random people i ran into at the portal, including the titty-totter people – my neighbours to the north, and the hookahdome people – my neighbours to the south, but only five people showed up, and only one of them had never been to a vegetable sacrifice before.

domesdomes have infected my brain! there are so many different styles, and they’re used for so many different things, and they work so well… i HAVE to get a dome, which i will use as a workshop! i also saw a temporary building that was made out of 2 inch styrofoam insulation, stuck together with duct tape and held down by straps staked to the ground. it was furnished with a desk, two chairs and a queen-sized bed made out of plywood. it was 120° on the playa, and it was a comfortable 75° – 80° inside. they have a web site! it’s PlayaTech! one third of humanity wishes they had a home this good!

i found that one of our neighbours, at 4:30 and esplanade, has a genuine, authentic pay phone, that connects to “the real world” through satellite, or internet, or some combination of the two. i called moe, but she’s not answering her cell, so i called her at work and they said that she had gone camping. you can make outgoing calls, and there’s a phone number posted on the phone itself, so i’m assuming that, if someone knows the number, they can call in as well. apparently there are always things like this scattered throughout the city, but they’re not publicised so that they don’t get overused.

The Jagannath Templei also found a real, live, hindu temple – to jagannath – on the playa. it’s too bad i didn’t discover it earlier, but i went to pay my respect to the Master of The Universe on saturday, and stopped by again sunday morning before we left. we drove straight through and were home late sunday night, so that heather could go to work on monday. i can’t imagine what it must have been like for her.

i talked with stuart and he and i are pretty much of the same mind, in that we both came, saw what it was like, and now want to get the hell out of here before we fry our brains. personally, i’m of the opinion that, unless i have a really good reason to come, there’s really no point in my coming to burning man again. it’s impressive and all that, it’s an amazing art museum full of masses of art that wouldn’t be permissible anywhere else because it’s too bizarre, or too big, or too dangerous, but the lack of services that you didn’t bring with you more than offsets that. when i go camping i want to relax and feel good, not be tired and dirty and thirsty all the time. my feet are miserable, my hair is miserable, even with the shower yesterday and another one today, i’m dramatically dehydrated, i can’t drink enough water to save my life… the environment is oppressive!

i was supposed to go to burning man in 2003. i had bought(!) my ticket, which still qualifies as the largest amount i have paid for a single event in my entire life, and i was all ready to go, and then i had a brain injury and was unable to go. i was out of the hospital in time, but if i had gone i would have had to have had somebody there to watch and make sure i didn’t rupture stitches, or suffer heat stroke or something, so i sold my ticket to someone else. before i came to burning man, a number of people who had been several times themselves, told me that going to burning man and having a brain injury were very similar experiences, but i wasn’t sure. now, after having been to burning man, i would say that they are largely correct. they both dramatically and inalterably change the way you think about everything. the only difference that i can see is that there are fewer negative consequences from going to burning man, but that’s just what i can see. neither one of them is an event that i would like to repeat again in the near future.

all of my pictures and a bit more commentary are here if anybody’s interested.